Terrified by math? Don’t pass it on.

By Kimberly A. Brink

For some, math is a terrifying ordeal. Fractions provoke anxiety. Splitting the bill with friends is a stressful affair. And don’t even ask what the tax will be on that discounted shirt. I had a friend who found math so anxiety-inducing that the night before every math exam she developed what she affectionately called her “math rash”. If this sounds familiar (excluding perhaps the rash), you might have what it is known as math anxiety. Math anxiety is the feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear at the prospect of doing math. What’s more, if you’re a parent, you could be at risk of passing it on to your kids.

Kim mathapp
Image credit: audiolucistore

Parents pass on math anxiety to their children

Psychologists Sian Beilock and Susan Levine found that parents’ math anxiety could affect their children’s math performance. In a study published in Psychological Science, children of parents with high math anxiety did worse on a math achievement test than children of parents with low math anxiety, but only when parents helped with their homework. Children who did not receive help from their math-anxious parents performed just as well as children of parents with low math anxiety. It was better if parents with math anxiety did nothing at all! What’s more, the children who received help from parents with math anxiety were more likely to develop math anxiety themselves. From these findings, you might think that math anxious parents should just stay away from their kids’ math homework.

But before parents drop their child’s math homework, there is hope for math-anxious parents who want to be involved in their children’s math education. In a follow-up study published in Science this October, Beilock and Levine found that reading math stories and performing math problems guided by a math enrichment app at least one night a week could eliminate this disadvantage.

Practicing math with smartphone app improves math performance

Inspired by the practice of reading bedtime stories to improve children’s literacy skills, the researchers hypothesized that the same practice could also improve mathematical literacy. Instead of reading a bedtime story, children and parents were asked to read math-related stories and answer math questions from a smartphone app several times a week. 587 families from 22 Chicago area schools were given an iPad mini and asked to use an app inspired by the free app, “Bedtime Math”. Math app questions covered topics such as counting, geometry, arithmetic, fractions and probability. For example, children might read a story about the history of whipped cream and then answer a question like “If you’re making whipped cream for a party, and 1 cup of heavy cream makes 3 cups of whipped cream, how much whipped cream does 6 cups make?”

The researchers found that children who used the app at least once a week over the school year performed as if they had 3 months of additional math training when compared to children who used a similar app without math enrichment. This was true for all children, regardless of whether their parents had math anxiety. Even children with math-anxious parents improved when they studied math together with their parents using the math app.

So whether math scares you or not, you can help your children improve their math skills with just a little help from your smartphone. And if math does scare you, now you don’t have to fear that you will pass it on. For more information about math anxiety and its causes, read this interview with Sian Beilock.

If you’re curious about your level of math anxiety, take this quiz from the New York Times website. Tell us how you did in the comments below.

About the author

Kim-HeadshotKimberly A. Brink is a doctoral student in Developmental Psychology at the University of Michigan. She received her Bachelor of Science in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of technology. Kimberly is currently studying children’s developing understanding of technology and, in particular, their understanding of humanoid robots. She spends her free time programming, knitting, and consuming science fiction, horror, and action movies. Twitter: @KimberlyBrink

You can read all posts by Kimberly here.

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